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Local Tourism Down, But Not Dead

Audio

Aired 5/29/09

The local tourism industry has been struggling lately, but experts say San Diego is not any worse off than other parts of the state. Gas prices are high, hotel occupancy rates are down, but visitors are still coming to San Diego.

GLORIA PENNER: Memorial Day weekend came early this year and we're more or less into the summer season, despite May gray and June gloom, but summer brings visitors, and visitors mean money into the San Diego economy, which is much needed this year. So, Tom, are we actually going to hear the ka-ching of cash registers echoing through the county?

TOM YORK: I think we will, I was doing some research and basically for the first three and a half months of this year tourism was down about 20 percent, when you look at the entire economy that's not too bad. And of course with Memorial Day kicking off the summer season, I think there's a possibility that tourism will hang in there, it probably will be down compared to last year but I don't think it will suffer as much as some of the other industries we've seen here in the county. For example, the automobile industry or the retail industry, what other industries are there? As I was mentioning earlier, before the show started, I think at some point the temperatures in Arizona and points east of San Diego will reach a certain point that people will be desperate to get out from the heat and they will head west and come to San Diego, and they'll spend money. Last year we had two major events, we had the U.S. Open Golf Tournament and also Comic-Con which had record attendance. That sort of pulled the tourism industry locally out of the dumps. This year we only have Comic-Con, and from what I've been able to see on my research is that they're pretty much sold out. So it seems to me that that's going to hold up and if we get maybe the Padres winning a few more games, you know, some little pops here and there, I think tourism will survive.

TONY PERRY: How about our two big draws the zoo, Sea World.

TOM YORK: Zoo. Well, the zoo just opened an elephant exhibit, or actually, it's a multi animal exhibit at the park. It's a 7.4 acre facility. I think that will draw a lot of people, especially with families wanting to see what's new at the zoo. The animal park has a new ride, so I think that will draw people, that will be local people from the most part, people in the region. One other positive aspect is San Diego being so close to Los Angeles, Los Angeles County. I think a lot of people up there can take a short jaunt down to San Diego, spent a weekend here and spend money.

GLORIA PENNER: But, you know, the part that kind of amazes me is that last year we heard that the price of gasoline was stifling the willingness of people to get in their cars and just drive to vacations. And now we're seeing the price of gasoline has been increasing on a daily basis for the last month, so let me ask Scott about this, I mean, do you see that the price of gasoline is going to suppress the numbers of people that are just going to jump in their cars from Arizona or Los Angeles or points north and come on down here? It's not going to be that cheap anymore.

SCOTT LEWIS: I don't think price of gas will be a major factor. I think the fact that they're out of work in record numbers, and that their personal economies have been shocked more than at any other time, probably in their lives, I think that probably will be a little bit of a bigger deal. Gas prices I think historically are pretty reasonable right now. The City of San Diego, we just talked about how much financial trouble they're in, the deficit we're talking about upcoming is anywhere from 100-$200 million, the numbers keep coming out bigger and bolder. But the funding for the tourism marketing is at an all-time high. The Convention and Visitors Bureau has collected more money than it ever has and that is because of this special fee that the hotels put on their visitors. City of San Diego for years and years tried to pass an increase to this tourist, this transient occupancy tax, which is the taxes you pay when you visit a hotel room in town. And years and years tried to do that so they could fund parks and fire and other issues.

GLORIA PENNER: And the voters wouldn't go for it.

SCOTT LEWIS: The voters wouldn't go for it to the extent that the law required the voters to go for it. And so the hoteliers decided to basically get together and price fix themselves and raise the prices and collect that money and give it to tourism marketing. So now we have a situation where the basic infrastructure of San Diego is threatened, and on the other hand our tourism marketing, these commercials and other things that we're doing is being funded at an all-time high. So you have the community literally deciding that our savior is in tourism and is in bringing people to San Diego to spend money and create jobs that frankly I don't think have been proven to be very beneficial to the region as far as high-paying and long-lasting.

GLORIA PENNER: Well, if there were a decline in local tourism that would affect local residents, would it not? Isn't tourism in a big segment of our industry, of our economy in San Diego?

TOM YORK: Yes, it is, it's a big part of our economic engine, back during the winter when it looked like things were starting to fall apart as far as tourism goes, the people, the hoteliers were unhappy with the chief executive and sort of forced him out simply because they felt that he wasn't ahead of the curve. And I think there's been a lot of effort on the part of hotel owners and hotel operators to get ahead of the curve and spend the money to keep this engine going. And so far it looks like there is some success in that area.

SCOTT LEWIS: Let's be clear they're not spending the money though, they're taxing the visitors and they're using that money to invest in it. In any other, I think, world, if you were to get together with your competitors and raise your prices by the exact same amount and then use that money to compete with another group of people across the country that would be considered an antitrust violation and I think that this is just a bizarre situation that the city, because of it, and this is what I'm talking about, the city is falling apart and the only people that are doing anything are the people who are trying to protect their own interests. God love them, I think they've done a fantastic job and are leading the way, but that is going to be a situation where we protect the things that people want to visit and come see, the Sea World's, the parks, and the zoo's, whereas the rest of the city suffers.

GLORIA PENNER: Tom.

TOM YORK: I would just mention there was a previous tax in place, that was the TOT tax and the city decided to suck that up and throw that into the mob of whatever is happening down at City Hall and that's why the hoteliers and hotel operators got together and basically came up with another tax.

SCOTT LEWIS: I know, it was genius.

TONY PERRY: I do think we will dig our way out of this. Remember after 9/11 tourism in this city took a nosedive because people were afraid for their lives. Now people are afraid for their budgets. That is a lesser fear, I would suggest, and there are glimmers of hope that this recession may start to wane, middle of the year, end of the year. Don't count San Diego out, and certainly by August when the Padres are in first place and the hated Dodgers have taken a dive, people are going to tromp down to Petco Park and then they're going to go over and see the elephants.

GLORIA PENNER: So maybe the slogan that the tourism marketing district came up with, "Happy Happens" will actually happen. Happy happens.

TOM YORK: Happiness happens.

TONY PERRY: Don't they say there are two businesses that withstand even a recession, the entertainment industry and organized crime, I don't know if we've got that second one, but we certainly have the entertainment industry.

GLORIA PENNER: OK, were gonna end up with a little once around the table on Proposition 8 that was upheld by the state Supreme Court this week, meaning same-sex marriage is not valid in California. Although the 18,000 people who got married between the time that the Supreme Court said it was valid and the time the voters said it was not, those marriages stand. So same-sex marriage advocates are hoping that opinion is growing in their direction, that there is a cultural shift happening and they're looking to putting their own ballot measure on next year. Tony, too soon?

TONY PERRY: No, I don't think it's too soon. I think that they're right, there is a slow movement in their behalf, I think they were outflanked politically by the pro eight people just had a much better campaign. There is that political spectrum, the far left and the far right, remember, it isn't linear, it curves around and the two sides agree on one thing, government ought to get out of people's lives and I think that, in the long run, even if the courts continue to sit on their hands, that's what will prevail.

GLORIA PENNER: Scott Lewis, should they wait, let's say until 2012 to put their own ballot measure on to legalize same-sex marriage?

SCOTT LEWIS: I think there's a good chance it could go through in the next year and I think there's a better chance it would go through in the two years after that, I think that this is humorous in a certain way that Californian's, a lot of intellectual Californian's think, well how are we behind the curve of Vermont, New Hampshire and other places? We're supposed be the ones that are always ahead of the curve and I think this is an instance where–

GUEST SPEAKER: It's money from Utah. Money from Utah.

SCOTT LEWIS: I think also a situation where California's basic government structure held it back from progressing past these other people, it's easier to change the constitution in California then it is to raise a tax. People change the constitution and the court had its hands tied.

GLORIA PENNER: You've got five seconds, Tom York.

TOM YORK: Instead of a monarch I think we need a Solomon.

GLORIA PENNER: A Solomon. OK, thank you very much, we appreciate that very brief reply. Well, thanks to the editors Tony Perry and Scott Lewis and Tom York and thanks to our callers and our listeners. Remember tonight, San Diego Week, and we will see you again next week. This is the Editors Roundtable, I'm Gloria Penner.

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